Science Fair: Deep thought or dead time

When I was training, my tutor had a thing about ‘dead time’, that is when a student has nothing to do and just sits there quietly not learning anything. My priority in the early years of my career was to avoid that as much as possible.

You get ‘dead time’ throughout the lesson.

At the start: when they are waiting to hear what to do. (Maybe you already told them (or think you did), or maybe you are having to sort out something before you can begin your activities.)

If a student finishes quickly and you need the rest of the class to finish before you can move on.

If a student finishes all the activities you had planned.

I was taught to have plenty of activities available. Even things you did not plan to do with the rest of the class. Just for early finishers. It is important it is not more of the same, though it does not necessarily need to be ‘harder’. This is not always possible or sometimes they whiz through that too, so Plan B is getting them to read a book or do homework from another lesson.

Anything to avoid ‘dead time’. Anything to avoid another adult coming into the classroom and seeing idle students.

This seemed eminently fair to me in the first years of teaching. Obviously, students come to school to learn. They come to school to be active and get the most out of their time.

That was until I read a book about creativity: ‘Imagine’ by Jonah Lehrer. We say we want to teach creative thinking and yet we do not allow the conditions for creativity.

If I am stuck on a lesson idea, I take a shower. There is nothing to read or distract. I just stare into space while I do an automatic task. Ideas take form and are usually the best lesson plans. Or if I am trying to solve a problem, I need to discuss it with another person. Even if the conversation veers off into unplanned territory, I am still ticking over the problem and find the answer. Or when I am on the train or the bus, I have a lot of good ideas and make great connections.

My tutor would have called this ‘dead time’, this wool gathering. This day dreaming.

Now, don’t get me wrong, a lot of my lessons are not ‘about’ creativity. There are circumstances that would mean daydreaming was not productive and would be a waste of my student’s time. But. I am finding these circumstances are fewer and fewer.

For example, in Science Fair, I have told my students to design their own experiment. My hands are off. There are no worksheets to run through. There is no textbook to guide them. The most guidance they get from me is what they will be assessed on.

This is intensely creative. Not only to find an experiment. But to think of a hypothesis for it. And a conclusion. And to think of follow up experiments. And to think of how it fits in with ‘known’ science.

My students are going to stare into space. They need to. It would be wildly inappropriate for me to tell them to ‘look busy’ or fill their time with activity. They need space to think and it looks like they are doing nothing. Sometimes they distract themselves while they think about the problem. (This looks exactly like they are distracting themselves so they don’t have to think about the problem, so how am I supposed to know the difference?)

My students are going to chat. Their conversations are going to go on tangents. They need to. Of course, I need to train them to keep each other honest. But if you are discussing how to see how people behave when you test their honesty, you are going to go off topic because you have been tangentially reminded of something. If you are testing how fast someone can speak, you might talk about popular music and artists you like.

The problem with being this sort of teacher is the problem of perception amongst colleagues. Some teachers do not need to work with creativity very much. Some teachers have a much more rigid approach to the creative process. This is fine, we are all different. But I feel the heavy look of judgement sometimes, when colleagues walk through my classroom. It’s not like I can run after them and say “but Suzie had a fantastic idea about velcro just now!” because the process is hidden to me until the assignment is submitted.

It’s an exciting time in education but it’s a difficult transition. Before, when we were preparing them for the factory or the farm, ‘turn to page 40 and do the odd exercises’ would do. You could show your colleagues how much ‘work’ your students did. Even when we got ‘Assessment for Learning’, and we didn’t rely on textbooks and worksheets, we could still show that students were meeting the learning objectives at the end of the lesson.

But what if you literally do not know what your students’ learning objective will be? You know you want them to design their own experiment but you don’t know that they are going to learn that ultraviolet light causes chemical reactions with lemon juice which is why candle light turns it brown but a hot radiator won’t. Or you don’t know that they will find out that hypotheses work best when they are ‘wrong’.

Or even harder on the teacher: what if you know your learning objective will take more than one lesson to achieve and there is no half way point where you can point and say ‘look, they weren’t being LAZY on my watch, see they got half of this learning objective’.

My inner traditional teacher is quite cynical about this, I have to tell you. She is shaking her head and suggesting that this is all a bit arty farty. If a student is making progress, you should be able to see that. She’s right of course. But she needs to understand that the creative process cannot be tamed to work within 40 minute bursts and it does not always look like as much ‘work’ as answering comprehension questions. But it is almost certainly more powerful and definitely more valuable to the student.

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